Monday, December 6, 2010

On (not) being Spartacus

Last week, to my very great surprise, I became caught up in the margins of a currently-unfolding media story.  Julie Posetti, journalist and University of Canberra academic, live-tweeted reports from a journalism education conference in Sydney, as a consequence of which Chris Mitchell, editor of The Australian, has threatened to sue her for defamation.  The case has rapidly become a cause célèbre on Twitter (trending with the #twitdef hashtag).  For the most succinct account of the story, read Andrew Dodd's account in Crikey.

While they were fresh in my mind, I wanted to jot down some thoughts and ideas about what happened. Happened to me, that is.  What happened, and continues to happen, to Julie is far more serious and has far wider implications for social media, journalism and academia.  I suspect it is also far more dangerous to write about right now - a fact that should give all of us cause for profound concern.

I should pause at this point and say that what follows is not an academic analysis.  I am an academic, moreover one who champions, uses and reflects on social media as part of my professional life.  I use Twitter as a tool in the classroom (and the virtual classroom) as it pushes students towards engagement, interaction, conversation and critique.  This is a much healthier place to be, educationally, than the poor buggers having to sit in the lecture theatre uncritically absorbing every fact or opinion I drip-feed into their heads simply because I can profess the privileged identity of "Lecturer".  I suspect there may be some analogies that can be drawn between education and the media around the issues of identity, authority, and privileged access to "facts".  At some point in the future I shall certainly write an academic article on #twitdef and its impact on academic practices and values.  But this is not it.

Nor - and this is most important - nor is what follows in any way "journalism". As Caroline Overington has written in the Australian, "the work of beautiful writers and fearless reporters can’t be done by just anyone".  I can assure you I am neither beautiful nor fearless.  I am plain, timid, and very ordinary.  I just want to post a personal reflection.  Not for "publication", like a fearless reporter - I have no desire whatever to penetrate Caroline Overington's inner sanctum.  But for "conversation", for discussion with, well ... anyone who's interested. Just anyone.

This issue of identity is also of the essence to the #twitdef story.  I have followed @julieposetti on Twitter for a year now, and her identity is a very slippery fish indeed.  Delightfully so.  As a journalism academic at the University of Canberra, I have her listed in both my 'media' list and my 'education' list.  I have her in the 'cultcha' list, reserved for people who make interesting observations about the state we're in - for instance I find her quite personal commentary on her parenting both fascinating and useful to my own.  She's also in my 'ACT' list, one of my favourites.  I love the way that Twitter enables conversations that are simultaneously global and local, universal and parochial.  When Julie came under attack from a national newspaper owned by a global corporation, there's no doubt that one of the reasons my instincts were to defend her was because she was part of my community - a neighbour.  The part social media plays in redefining our sense of 'belonging' (to whom? to what? to where?) is an aspect of all this #twitdef kerfuffle that has not yet got a run.

When the story broke of the defamation threat general indignation let loose on Twitter, the blogosphere, and in some sections of the online media.  Dozens expressed concern about freedom of speech, the legal issues involved, the issues of journalistic ethics, and the ideological war that appears to be raging between The Australian and social media as a phenomenon.  My own gut reaction was primarily concern for her as an academic, engaged in what is now normal academic practice.  I have recently returned from the late-summer European conference circuit, where I was live-tweeting the sometimes controversial proceedings like a deranged canary.  Thus I joined in the general upwelling of solidarity, and tweeted some comments and messages of support to Posetti for what I felt was an unjustified action against her, and a threat to the medium itself.  I tweeted "Mitchell isn't actually suing @julieposetti, as much as suing Twitter itself, for it is the latter that can damage the reputation of the Oz. And is now doing so. Therefore #iamposetti . And so's my wife :-)"

That last bit, about my wife, was a joke.  Not an original joke; it was a reference to the "I'm Brian" scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian, which itself is a parody of the "I'm Spartacus" scene from the Kubrick film Spartacus. To make it crystal clear that what I wrote was an allusion, and not to be taken literally (Julie Posetti is not my wife; I have never met her) I put the little symbol ':-)'.  In current internet parlance, one of the things that symbol signifies is that the writer is joking.

Forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious.  However, one of the fault lines that is running through the whole #twitdef debate surrounds the social media literacies required to interpret contextual meaning.  In 140-character Twitter, there's a tiny little parole and a hell of a lot of rapidly-shifting langue (but that's getting to the academic article that this isn't).  There's another identity issue here - a commonality among those conversant with the argot of social media, and a gulf between them and those who do not.  Do you speak internet jive?

At the same time, I posted another tweet on the same theme: "Crap! Mitchell is sueing @julieposetti! The Oz has a week to get its shit together or I’m blowing the place sky-high. #twitdef #iamspartacus".  

Once again, this was an allusion; this time to the "Twitter Joke Trial" of Paul Chambers in the UK.  Chambers tweeted exactly that wording, as a fairly unfunny "joke" about Robin Hood airport in Doncaster.  Despite in no way being serious (this is clear from his surrounding tweets), he was nevertheless prosecuted and convicted under the UK's anti-terrorism laws.  During his appeal, thousands retweeted his original tweet as an expression of support and solidarity, adding the #iamspartacus hashtag, a reference to the Kubrick movie.  In other words, saying "if you are going to prosecute him, you'll have to prosecute me too".  My own tweet, exchanging "The Oz" for "Robin Hood airport" was intended to draw an analogy between what I believe was the overly heavy-handed treatment of both Chambers and Posetti.  Taken together, my three tweets were a call for the Twitterverse to support Posetti in a similar fashion to the thousands who had supported Chambers.  That intent was quite serious, even though there were "jokes" involved.

I wonder what would have happened if, instead, I had retweeted Julie's original tweets reporting the conference? With the #iamspartacus hashtag?  Or if hundreds or thousands of us had done so?  Would Chris Mitchell be suing us all?  I thought about doing so, but I was too afraid  (see, Caroline?  You really are safe from me).

So there: my tweets in support of Posetti chock-full of clever intellectual contextual reference, layers of allegorical meaning, and whatnot.  All that notwithstanding, perhaps tweeting any kind of tweet containing the words "The Oz" and "I'm blowing the place sky-high" was not the cleverest thing I had ever done.

Then the farce started for me personally.  First I received a somewhat peremptory email from Geoff Elliott, Media Editor at The Australian, wanting to know if I was the author of the #iamspartacus tweet.  The next day he called me, repeated his question about my tweet and then stated "we're referring it to the police".  Of course, I was rather frightened and bewildered at that point.  Crikey reported the incident as a footnote to their coverage of the Posetti story.  The Australian rang the ANU, my employer, for comment as to why an ANU academic should be tweeting this sort of stuff.  Fortunately, sensibly and correctly, the ANU's only comment was that I was tweeting in a private capacity - but there we go; the issue is once again one of identity. Finally, Elliott wrote a short and slightly derisive piece about me on his blog at The Australian.

And there it rests.

My first reaction to Geoff's piece was combative.  I wanted to want to respond, indignant, to set the record straight.  I was offended by his sarcastic interpretation; there were in my view several significant omissions in his story; and his attempt to link my actions as a private individual to my employment as an academic seemed curious and contrived.  

However, I didn't respond, and I'm pleased I didn't.  Much as I disagreed with it, Geoff is entitled to put his view, and certainly entitled to do so without abuse or mockery. Freedom of expression is one of the essential principles underpinning the whole #twitdef issue, and has been undermined by the level of caustic vitriol that has been directed both ways during the debate, both on Twitter and in the press.

In particular, I was saddened to see Sally Jackson, social media writer for The Australian, subject to extended attack from a handful of tweeters after an article she wrote reporting the Posetti story.  She has written about that in her column.  One of the issues she faced was the anonymity of the worst of those savaging her - and here the slipperiness of identity on Twitter can allow cowardly acts indeed. 

Cowardly, fearless; clever, dumb; personal, professional; profound, inane: for me, the whole reason Twitter is a qualitatively different medium from those that existed previously is that it makes possible close-up, informal, messy, contradictory, to-and-fro interaction. Really human interaction.  There is not space in 140 characters to take a coherent ideological position, expound a crystal-perfect argument, or cite a dozen references.  Twitter makes us get messy.  Twitter forces us to chat.  Sally Jackson uses twitter well.   She uses it well professionally.  But she also spent some of Saturday chatting about how to remove graffiti from her wall, and about playing games with her son.  She even had a brief but pleasant exchange with me about chutney, despite the fact I support the other "side" on the twitdef issue.  The messy, human informality of Twitter can have a negative side - as was seen in the abuse directed at Sally.  But it also has a positive side: it shows the necessarily imperfect human faces behind all our carefully-constructed public profiles.  It shows individuals, not institutions; shows the people behind the paywalls. 

So I'm glad I didn't follow my initial reaction and lash back at Geoff Elliott.  I had dug back in his tweet stream to last October and found a series of jokes he and Sally had made about full wastepaper baskets: a series of "bin laden" jokes.  It would have been very easy to follow the lead of his piece about me, paste in a screenshot and subject him to a bit of tit-for-tat ridicule about the appropriateness of such levity for someone in his position. 

But that would have been puerile and pointless.  I'm delighted Geoff and Sally made these jokes.  It reveals them as human beings, not just pawns in institutional ideological battles about the future of media.  It gives dimension and contour to their identities.

The day after he wrote his piece about me, Elliott tweeted "Fair cop. One grumpy fellow said today citing the plod re the dumb sparticus tweet was not cleverest thing I had done. I agreed."

Not an apology, not a formal retraction, not a published justification.

Just a tweet.  Like a normal bloke.  Like ... just anyone.

And a tweet is good enough for me.

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